I may have mentioned my love of Sharon Shinn around here before--I really love Sharon Shinn. I don't love every one of her books, but I love the way she writes, the way she builds worlds and builds stories around mundanities and details, characters and very small moments.
I have particularly loved the Samaria series, and right now I'm in the middle of the latest one, Angel-Seeker. This is Shinn's own favorite in the series, and I've heard from others that it's the best. I think I agree--although the first book, Archangel, had the advantage of the novelty of all that wonderful worldbuilding, this one is definitely the most thoughtful, particularly about love and the place of romance in society. By this point in the series, Shinn's done a lot of exploration about the place of religion in society and how it shapes individuals, and about what it means to know that god is not omnipotent.
But make no mistake, this is a romance series, straight up, and the fact that this book is so thoughtful about relationships is really satisfying. Elizabeth is on her own in the world and a bit resentful of it; she moves to Cedar Hills to attempt to win an angel lover, in the hopes of bearing a child who will guarantee her place in the hold. Rebekah is a good Jansai daughter, veiled and chaste, until she meets the angel Obadiah, in need of nursing back to health. In traditional romance plot, they fall in love and challenge each other's worlds.
Okay, now here I have to talk about the problematic part. As usual, I'm writing this review from 2/3 of the way into the book, so I can't tell for sure how problematic this is going to be; it could be that the stuff I'm seeing is deconstructing all the things it has me worried about. But this is the first book in the series where we get inside Jansai society, and boy howdy, this is one big can of worms.
Jansai, as readers of the series will remember, are a nomadic, mercenary/mercantile race who have dark skin, keep their women veiled, and will do anything for a buck. In pretty much every book so far, the Jansai are the bad guys. They enslaved the Edori (who are invariably generous, open-hearted, and friendly); the allied with the rich (greedy) Mandaavi merchants to make business deals that crush the competition. They conduct raids; they cheat. And, as we learn in this book, they stone their women if they transgress.
Okay, so first, there's something problematic about any story in which there is a race that is all composed of Bad Guys (or Good Guys, or any one kind of person). Yes, there are cultural mores in any situation, but the broader the strokes painting these, the more troubling this kind of thing is. And at the beginning of this book, I was actually getting pretty disgusted by how the angels (tall, gorgeous, musical, goodgoodgood) all described the Jansai--greasy, greedy, disgusting--and their city, Breven--dirty, smelly, unpleasant. On his visits, Obadiah does not meet a single Jansai whom he trusts, enjoys, or even just is not grossed out by.
Then, of course, he meets Rebekah, and that's totally different. And through her we get glimpses of the rebellions of women, both small and large. In fact, the women we meet through Rebekah have a relatively reassuring range of personalities, of feelings and opinions outside of (or rather, ranging wide within) the constraints of being veiled. I guess what I'm saying is that you see that some of these women have real interior lives, and you see how they spend their time.
The men, however--with the notable exception of a couple of helpful younger brothers--are, to a man, hostile, aggressive, distrusting, and icky. Not just to women, but to "civilized" people who come among them. I think that, unless Obadiah finds a couple of Jansai men he can talk to, and unless some man stands up for the young women who (I know) are going to find themselves in trouble by the end of the book, I'm going to have to flat out say that this great book that I'm really enjoying so much is kind of pretty darned racist.
I hope that happens. In fact, I have some confidence in Sharon Shinn, that she's painting these unattractive pictures near the beginning so that we can follow Obadiah as he learns more about the Jansai as a people (not just as eager slave-drivers). I think it's likely, and I'm really interested to find out.
Let me say, too, that this kind of indictment is particularly tricky, because unlike some depictions of other societies, you don't just want your heroes to realize that the Jansai are great just the way they are. Because they stone their women. They keep them locked up. I mean, it's not all noble savage, or separate but equal, or something like that. They're a messed up society. But she'll need to give me more than "but Rebekah is so great!" for me to think that this one-dimensional portrayal isn't seriously problematic. She doesn't even give the Jansai any of the traditional virtues that the Arabs they're based on have going for them--a long history of civilization and scholarship and master craftsmanship. Mandaavi are civilization; Luminaux is craftsmanship. Jansai are savages. I hope Obadiah and I learn otherwise.